January 2012 – Syrah


The northern part of France’s Rhone Valley is the classic home for great wines from the Syrah grape. Rhone wines such as Hermitage ad Cote-Rotie are the inspiration for Syrah’s dissemination to Australia, California, Washington, Italy and Spain.

Syrah produces deeply colored wines with full body, firm tannin, and aromas/flavors that can suggest berries, smoked meat, black pepper, tar, or even burnt rubber (believe it or not). In Australia, Syrah (called Shiraz) comes in several styles – some of them charming, medium bodied, vibrantly fruity wines that are quite the opposite of the Northern Rhone’s powerful Syrahs.

Syrah doesn’t require any grape to complement its flavors, although in Australia it is often blended with Cabernet, and in southern Rhone it is often part of a blend with Grenache and other varieties.

Shiraz wines are particularly interesting because they come in numerous styles, from inexpensive, juicy wines brimming with ripe plum and blackberry fruit to serious wines that express specific regional characteristics, such as spice and pepper from cool-climate areas (Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills) or sweet fruit ripeness from warmer areas (McLaren Vale, Barossa, and Clare).

France’s Northern Rhone: Cote-Rotie, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage.

Some vintners add a touch of Viognier, a white grape with an exceptionally floral fragrance, to their Cote-Rotie, which adds a delicate note to the brooding, tannic wine.

Australia: Easy to tell Australian Shiraz apart from French Syrah because of its ebullient fruitiness and clean, bright flavors. Often vintners will age Shiraz in American oak, which adds lush notes of vanilla and sometimes coconut to the wine’s already sweet cherry-plum notes. Look at the appellation for notes on the style.

  • Barossa – substantial Shiraz, fat with rich, dense, sweet fruit flavors.
  • Hunter Valley – Funky, earthy Shiraz.
  • McLaren Vale – Almost as big as Barossa Shiraz
  • Southeastern Australia – Juicy, simple $5 to $12 reds
  • Victoria – Muscular, dense Shiraz
  • Western Australia – Lean, Northern Rhone-like Shiraz

Price can also indicate style:

  • $3 – $12 – juicy , easy Shiraz
  • $13 – $25 – Shiraz to bring to dinner at a friends house; solid, ready to drink, with plenty of fruit kept fresh and firm by spicy acidity and pleasantly gritty tannin.
  • Above $25 – your’ into the blockbusters, the wines that pack in enough fruit, tannin and acidity for a side of beef, or to last a decade in the wine cellar. These are special occasion wines featuring some serious protein.

Off the Vine Note: Some Australian Shiraz smells a bit like a peppermint patty, with a distinctly minty note sandwiched between its chocolaty fruit. Some people think it’s the nature of the grapes in certain areas; others point to the numerous eucalyptus trees as the source.

California: The Rhone Rangers, was a group of vintners that banded together in the 1980’s to promote Syrah as a great fit for California’s warm climate. They produced an array of smokey, chocolaty, cherry-filled, spice-scented beauties which proved their point. If a California wine calls itself Shiraz you can bet it’s made in the Australian style in mind; rich, ripe, and sweetened by the vanilla tones of American oak.

  • Santa Barbara – In general dense yet juicy, with black fruit and even black-olive flavors and firm tannin Two sub-zones are:
  • Santa Ynez Valley – cool, sunny weather allows grapes to ripen slowly over long season, making Syrah with lots of spice and earth tones surrounding a core of sweet red cherry flavor.
  • Santa Maria Valley – even cooler than Santa Ynez, so its Syrahs are even leaner, with lots of spice and mineral tones, more Northern Rhone in style than Southern.
  • Napa – Syrah grapes bask in the sun protected valley, tends to be dense and chunky with sweet fruit
  • Sonoma – Syrahs are spicier
  • Russian River Valley – can be downright peppery
  • Mendocino – even cooler area the Syrah is light and frisky, with high acidity that makes its red-cherry flavors dance

Washington State: The sun soaked Columbia Valley seems to turbo charge the vines allowing them to produce Syrah with soft, ripe, even chocolaty fruit flavor, yet firm with acidity and tannin. These are hard to find for less than $18. Easily found at $30 or more.

Quick Sips: Syrah at a glance: plums and blackberries, sweet spice and black pepper, and often a note of eucalyptus and a steak of vanilla, coconut, or dill from American oak barrels.

Peppery can mean many things, from the pleasant, fresh-crushed black pepper-like spice of good Rhone Syrah to the green note of a jalapeno. Sometimes, however, it’s a polite way of saying the win’s alcohol burns a bit too much, like too much white pepper in a food dish.